Exhuming Old Hickory for the war on terror

Andrew Jackson's continuing influence helps explain the US determination to bring democracy to rogue states, says Amity Shlaes.

What makes America so belligerent? Why are Americans so undiplomatic? Why won't that old standby, containment, satisfy them when it comes to Iraq and Iran? Do Americans belong to another species?

Well yes, in a way they do - Homo jacksonius. Andrew Jackson was America's gun-toting, swearing, warmongering seventh president. A corner of the American soul is still inhabited by Old Hickory and that corner has expressed itself quite a bit since September 11.

Here is a refresher on aspects of Jacksonian war doctrine, pulled together with the aid of Jackson biographies and Walter Russell Mead, the author of an illuminating new book on US foreign policy.*

* Jacksonian Americans are a folk community. Hundreds of years ago, Irish and Scots immigrants and their children peopled the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky. Their ideals were simple: self-reliance, honour and equality. They were not eager to join in wars. And they had a healthy suspicion of distant government.

Jackson himself was initially a community lawyer - and spoke of the "idiots" in Washington. As president, he called the Second Bank of the US a "hydra-headed monster" and set about destroying it. All this to some degree still describes American attitudes - think of Congress's hostility to the United Nations. It explains the obliviousness of America to the rest of the world before September 11.

* Everything changes once Jacksonians feel their honour has been assailed. Jackson was a child of the American revolution and his anger at the British was a personal one: a British officer gashed his head with a sword while he was a child; his mother died while nursing the wounds of those who had fought the British. He also saw Indians kill his fellow soldiers. So when his chance came he vanquished both Brits and Indians. Pearl Harbor and September 11 were the same sort of galvanising event. Once such a violation takes place, Jacksonians are ready for war - war of breathtaking violence and war on all fronts.

* Jacksonians distinguish between honourable and dishonourable opponents. In Jackson's time, the dishonourables were the Indians. Indians scalped and massacred civilians. Jacksonians considered this unscrupulous, says Mr Mead, and matched them massacre for massacre.

Today, the US does not destroy villages in revenge. But Jacksonianism explains Donald Rumsfeld's unapologetic treatment of the terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Jackson had his own version of John Walker Lindh - an ally of the Indians called Arbuthnot. Jackson crossed into Spanish Florida, grabbed "the noted Scotch villain" and hanged him after a military trial. You have to wonder what today's human rights types would make of that.

* When war is over, Jacksonians want to civilise and reform their enemy. "It was not enough to defeat a tribe in battle," says Mr Mead. "One had to 'pacify' it, to convince it utterly and totally that resistance was, and always would be, futile and destructive. For this to happen, the war had to go to the enemy's home."

Here we have the justification for the postwar occupation of Japan and Germany - General Douglas MacArthur being a great Jacksonian. This civilising tradition also explains the current US wish to eradicate the "axis of evil" and bring a new government in Iraq.

Why then, does the ferocious American come as such a surprise to the world? One reason is that other traditions have tended to dominate foreign policy lately. The Wilsonian impulse, which values human rights and multinational legal settlements, has been at work in Yugoslavia. The Hamiltonian influence pushes for international diplomacy. There is also a Jeffersonian will to avoid "entangling alliances".

But another factor conceals America's warrior side. It is that the Jacksonians - the historical equivalent of "Joe Six-Pack", are not much represented in the State Department, the press, or the modern presidency. Richard Nixon was no Jacksonian, nor was Gerald Ford, nor was the first President George Bush. Foreign visitors and diplomats who met Americans in the postwar period rarely encountered a Jacksonian. Neither Vietnam nor Korea was a Jacksonian venture.

But Jacksonians have always been there - and so has their influence at the ballot box. Only they, says Mr Mead, can explain the superstar status of General MacArthur in his day, or John McCain more recently. Only they, one might add, can explain President George W. Bush's popularity ratings.

Mr Bush is, by instinct if not breeding, something of an Andrew Jackson. (That includes his spelling ability. Robert Remini, Jackson's biographer, describes the seventh president's spelling as "grotesque".) And Jacksonians will not hesitate to wreak revenge on a president who does not conduct war to their liking: Jacksonians were as hostile as the anti-war movement to Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's handling of Vietnam.

Where does all this leave the Middle East? It tells us first of all that Americans are serious - they feel that civilisation's survival is at stake. They will therefore continue what they have started, in Asia, Iraq, or even the former Soviet state of Georgia.

But it also offers hope, for after losers acknowledge their defeat, Jacksonians are magnanimous. Jackson's forces killed many Indians but he himself adopted and educated one. The Marshall Plan for Europe and the Japanese constitution were Jacksonian constructs. And if the US manages to advance democracy in the Middle East, that will be thanks in part to Old Hickory, too.

* Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World by Walter Russell Mead; Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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